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Disagreement Continues on Status of Guantanamo Detainees - 2002-09-10

In the months following last year's terrorist attacks on America, U.S. military forces captured hundreds of suspected Taleban and al-Qaida fighters on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Human rights groups say international law allows the United States to hold the combatants. But they have blasted the Bush Administration for refusing to grant them formal prisoner-of-war status. Many of the detainees are being held at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Amid the chirping of crickets and other nighttime creatures, a recording of a Muslim "call to prayer" blares over loudspeakers at Camp Delta, which holds 598 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Brigadier General Rick Baccus commands the operation. He says there is no mystery as to why the former combatants are not regarded as prisoners of war.

"The president determined that the detainees did not comply with the requirements of the Geneva Convention in how they conducted warfare and, as such, they were not to be considered prisoners of war, but rather as enemy combatants," General Baccus said.

International law experts say the distinction between prisoners of war and enemy combatants is important for the Bush administration. They say, under the Geneva Convention, POW's must either be released or prosecuted for war crimes, once hostilities have ended. In the case of suspected Taleban detainees, a POW designation would have forced the Bush administration's hand months ago, because Afghanistan's former Taleban regime fell just weeks after the United States launched the war on terrorism, late last year.

Tom Malinowski of the American-based group Human Rights Watch says, whatever practical reasons President Bush may have for refusing to regard the detainees as POW's, they do not justify what he describes as the United States' blatant violation of international law.

"Some of them should be entitled to POW status because they were fighting for the government of an enemy power, namely the government of Afghanistan," Mr. Malinowski said. "The Bush administration refused to make that designation and that is really unprecedented in the history of America's involvement in warfare."

Mr. Malinowski says the fact that the former Taleban regime was largely shunned by the international community is of no consequence.

Other observers take a different view, including American University international law professor Kenneth Anderson.

"In order to qualify to be a prisoner of war, under international law, you must wear some kind of identifying insignia to show that you are a combatant," he said. "You must have a commander who is responsible for enforcing discipline among his subordinates in order to ensure that the group adheres to the basic laws of war, meaning that you do not target civilians."

Mr. Anderson says the detainees held at Guantanamo meet neither requirement and, therefore, need not be regarded as formal prisoners of war.

Human rights groups have also objected to the United States' treatment of the detainees. For the first four months of the operation, detainees were kept in outdoor cells that some human right activists described as "dog kennels." Today, officials at Guantanamo say the detainees have vastly improved facilities, including a toilet and wash basin in each unit. The detainees are also said to be served "culturally appropriate" meals; to be allowed exercise sessions in recreational areas; and to have access to the same medical care as the troops that guard them.

However, conditions at Camp Delta cannot be verified by the media, which does not have access to the camp and cannot see the detainees or their cells. Representatives of the International Red Cross regularly visit the detainees, but do not make public their observations.

Brigadier General Rick Baccus says no one need worry. He says both the Pentagon and the American government, as a whole, oversee the detainee operation, and that he believes the American people trust their military to act in a humane and professional manner.

"One of our steadfast values within the U.S. military is that we have always treated enemy combatants humanely, once they lay down their arms," he said. "And, that is clearly going on in this case. All the servicemen and women who support this operation recognize that we have to conduct ourselves according to the highest standards of professionalism. And we do that everyday."

Over the last eight months, groups of detainees have mounted hunger strikes to protest living conditions and press for a resolution of their status. Four are reported to have attempted suicide. Guards at Camp Delta report that detainees who speak English have told them they are innocent of wrongdoing and asked when they will be allowed to go home.

Military police officer Eric Blewett says the believes the detainees are being treated far better at Camp Delta than any American soldier could expect, if captured on the battlefield. Nevertheless, he admits that detainees appear to be battling extreme boredom and that some have taken up unusual pursuits to pass the time.

Blewett: "Sometimes you look around to see what they are doing, and a lot of them have found creative things to do with toilet paper to make different things out of toilet paper, which is unreal."

Bowman: "Like toilet paper origami?"

Blewett: "Origami, that is exactly what it is. They decorate their cells with a bunch of paper flowers everywhere."

The Bush administration says the detainees will face some form of justice at a date yet to be determined. Until then, the United States continues to interrogate the captives, hoping to glean information that might prevent any future terrorist attacks on America or its allies.